“Westport parents freak out when our kids go to college. These are boys 4 years younger, coming to a completely different environment. Homesickness is natural. But the kids — and their parents — handle it well.”
I don’t know if Daphne Lewis freaked out when her own 3 kids graduated from Staples High School. But now — as head of A Better Chance of Westport‘s scholar selection committee — she has an up-front, personal view of the amazing process by which academically gifted and highly motivated young men of color leave their homes and hometowns, live in Westport, and enter a new and very different high school as freshmen.
Then she watches with pride as — despite many obstacles and challenges — they thrive, graduate, and head confidently to college.
Lewis has spent 25 years in Westport. ABC has been an integral part of our town since 2002. But she did not know much about the organization until a few years ago when her youngest son James — now a senior at Yale — became good friends with a Staples track teammate, ABC scholar Luis Cruz. (He’s about to graduate from Boston College.)
As an empty nester, Lewis became ABC’s coordinator of volunteer drivers — men and women who take the scholars to various activities, doctors’ appointments, friends’ houses, or wherever they need to go.
In her new role she’s in the midst of finding the next 2 young men who will join ABC’s long list of smart, talented, creative scholars.
Getting chosen for the national ABC program is an arduous task for 8th graders. Yet it’s not easy for ABC of Westport to get the cream of the crop either.
There are 300 ABC programs in the US. But the vast majority are in boarding or private day schools.
Only 20 or so are in public high schools, like Staples.
That makes us attractive to ABC candidates and their families. With no tuition, they don’t have to worry about financial aid.
The living arrangements — 8 young men share Glendarcy House just down the road from Staples, with resident directors — and the opportunity to spend weekends with host families may be more personal than dormitory living.
But the names and cachets of private schools can be powerful drawing cards. In addition, the idea of “public school” may be anathema to boys and their parents whose own experiences with them may be less than positive.
Which is why the selection process — bringing the strongest candidates, and their families — to see our school and town for themselves is so crucial.
Some youngsters first find out about the national ABC program from guidance counselors. Sometimes their parents are searching for a better educational opportunity for their kids. Either way, the process begins more than a year before 9th grade.
The national staff reviews applications. This year, they sent 31 to Westport.
Lewis and her committee examined each closely. Which of these boys, they wondered, had the potential to survive the rigors of our academically challenging high school? Which were involved in activities that Staples also offered? Which seemed to be the types who could meet strangers easily, advocate for themselves, and adapt to the new, very suburban and white environment of Westport?
Of course, Westport was not the only ABC program that received those applications. Our top candidates are also being courted by private schools.
Lewis’ committee narrowed the list. Then they invited 12 applicants — and their families — to Westport. Ten accepted.
ABC of Westport pays for the visits: transportation, meals, and an overnight stay at the Westport Inn.
In January, the first group arrived. They began with lunch at the Senior Center. There was an introduction to Westport’s ABC program, and informal meetings with board members and host parents.
A tour of the town followed (students and parents were taken separately). Then everyone gathered at Glendarcy House, to meet the current scholars and resident directors. The boys stayed for dinner; parents were taken to a restaurant.
The current scholars’ impressions are an important part of the selection process, Lewis notes.
On Monday, the students went to Staples. They spent the day visiting classes with the school’s Ambassadors (fellow teenagers).
“They feel very welcomed at Staples,” Lewis says. “They talk to a lot of people. They are very positive about that experience.”
Afterward, there were interviews in private homes with committee members. Meanwhile, their parents were given a tour of the school. (Full disclosure: I led the tour last month, and will give the next 2. If the applicants are half as amazing as their parents, in terms of motivation, insightful questions and energy, we’ve got a great group to choose from.)
It’s a whirlwind 28 hours. Then the ABC board really gets to work.
They need to make sure their offers are to boys who will fit in well — with the house, the school and the town. But they also need to make them soon enough, so they’re competitive with the private schools.
The process is sometimes completed by early April. Sometimes it’s not finalized until late May.
“It’s a lot of work,” Lewis says. “A lot of thought goes into it. We don’t take these decisions lightly.
“But it’s so much fun meeting the boys and their families. And it’s so difficult to choose.”
For nearly 2 decades, A Better Chance of Westport has chosen well. And the young men they’ve chosen, who then choose to come here, have gotten a great deal out of their decision.
But even more, they enrich our school and community beyond measure.
(Funds to bring potential scholars and their families here — and to run Glendarcy House, and the rest of the A Better Chance of Westport program — come almost entirely through donations. This year’s Dream Event annual major fundraiser is set for Saturday, March 14, 6:30 pm at Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton. Click here for tickets. Among the highlights of the dinner: speeches by graduates and alumni. Click below to hear then-senior Emerson Lovell’s talk.)